First published in fRoots magazine, January 2013 (issue 355-6)

Getting Out More

Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman had been off the performing radar for some years. Jo Breeze hears how they’ve approached the new performing realities.

Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman have been part of the British folk scene for a couple of decades now, but last year they brought out Hidden People, their first recording as a duo since 2004. Largely self-penned, the album marks their return to live performance as a unit after a few years’ hiatus, and shows off Kathryn’s stunning voice and their combined musical skills. That said, they suspect they don’t have many skills which would sustain humanity in the event of apocalypse.

“They sent a newsletter round our village at Christmas,” says Kathryn, “saying we’re forming an apocalypse committee in case of falling aircraft, bird flu or Armageddon, and we’re particularly looking for people who can operate a chainsaw! But that made me think. I could catch some rabbits and cook a good stew. I could document it, sing some songs, you know, get them dancing, keep them warm. That would be my contribution to Armageddon.”

The couple live in a village on the edge of Dartmoor, and describe their life as very ‘roses round the door’, having spent the last few years focusing on raising their two young daughters. The album draws on a wide range of stories and influences, including the Scandinavian folklore suggested by the title – Hidden People. 

“It’s a direct translation of ‘huldra’,” explains Kathryn. “It wasn’t a specific decision to explore Scandinavian folklore, I just happened to be reading a book about Scandinavian myths and legends at the time. I liked a particular story about the huldra, and it ties in nicely with British folklore and our storytelling tradition.”

The huldra is a mythical creature from Scandinavian folklore; she lives deep in the forest, and takes the form of a bewitching and beautiful woman from the front – but from the back, she is hollow like an old tree trunk and has an animal tail. Like many supernatural beauties, the huldra protects those who are polite and respectful towards her, but takes sometimes gruesome revenge on people – often men – who wrong her. “I’m always drawn to those darker stories, I’m quite macabre, so that really struck a chord with me. A suitable one for scaring the kids out of wandering off into the forest.” She’s only half-joking.

They cheerfully admit that the album is in many ways an excuse for the two to work together on a music project again, and to get out and do what they really enjoy – live performing. Taking a break for a few years, especially as musicians who’ve experienced the major record label side of the music industry as well as independent labels, means they’ve noticed a lot of changes.

“One of the things we’ve always done is to play folk clubs,” says Sean. “It’s part of learning your craft. But one thing that’s happened since we took a hiatus is that the younger generations of folk musicians are leapfrogging folk clubs, so as a result you get two things. You get folk clubs that become alienated from the new wave of singers and musicians coming through, and you also get this great gap of stagecraft with some younger acts, because they haven’t played more informal venues where they can learn and make mistakes.”

“Something else that’s different,” says Kathryn, “is that YouTube happened. That really freaked me out, at the first gig we did together after the girls, to look out and see people not watching the gig but all holding up their phones.”

“But I’ve also been through all of this with Seth,” Sean breaks in, “right through the huge explosion of YouTube and video sharing back in 2006-2007, and it’s almost another form of applause. In an audience of a thousand or so, if you’ve got loads of lights and cameraphones, that means they’re loving it. It’s just another term of endearment. They want to show their mates, people down the pub; ‘look what I saw’. That’s the modern experience, they want to share it.”

Another change over the last few years is the rise in legal music streaming services like Spotify, which divides opinion amongst musicians – royalties paid are alarmingly low, but on the other hand as Kathryn points out “whenever we’ve used it, we’ve then gone off and bought albums. It gives you the chance to try before you buy, and personally I have no objection to our music being on there.”

Sean says “we’ve made some great discoveries from Spotify. Their recommendations are quite sound; I’m definitely a fan. It’s the first place we go to check stuff out. It’s disgraceful what they pay the artists, yes, but if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. That’s just major companies – we’ve got a long history with big record labels, and big corporations screw the little people.”

Sean and Kathryn, along with (in various incarnations) Kate Rusby and Cara Dillon, and Sean’s brothers Sam and Seth, were part of Equation, the folk ‘supergroup’ signed to Warners in the ‘90s after appearing on the cover of fRoots, which they describe as a “really formative” experience. Kathryn says “one of the best things to come out of it was the people we were able to work with who were hugely outside our regular sphere.” Sean describes being taken under the wing of music PR legends Barbara Charone and Moira Bellas (regularly described as two of the most powerful women in the music industry, directors of MBC PR whose clients include Madonna, Rufus Wainwright, Keith Richards and more) without realising what they were being given: “Two absolute titans. And we didn’t know, they were just two old ladies who took us out to lunch and chatted. We were only just out of our teens.” Kathryn says, “We used to spend two or three months touring in America, so we gigged every single night, and in all sorts of places; we learned so much. In our early 20s we crammed a lot in, and that’s probably why we’re a little more laid-back and don’t feel quite so pressured that we’ve got something to prove. If people like what we do that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s fine.”

Admittedly, their time touring the US wasn’t entirely spent on stage. They remember getting a telling-off at a major contemporary art gallery in LA for exploring an artwork a little too closely: “it was a pool table, so we potted balls in it!” says Sean. “We thought it was interactive,” Kathryn adds; “they’d left the cues and everything, and chalk! A bunch of British people see a pool table, what do you expect?”

Being a professional folk musician is not known as a lucrative career choice, but one of the things the duo learned from their early days seems to be a practical but generous business sense – they want the scene to thrive as much as anyone. Sean explains; “We always make sure that nowhere we ever play is ever out of pocket, whether it’s a folk club, an arts centre, a theatre, anyone, we always make sure that everyone is happy and mates. To the extent of giving back money.” They admit they’ve only ever had to do that once, years ago, but “it was horrendous”.

Kathryn leans in and says “If somebody loses money on you they will not book you again. Then it has a knock-on effect for other artists, because they’re not going to say ‘yes, I’ll pay you £1000 guaranteed! I lost £800 last month but it’s ok, I’ll do it again.’ You can’t expect people to do that, it’s not fair. But it can be very hard if you’re just starting out; it would cost you to play.”

They talk about the problems facing new performers who haven’t yet made a name for themselves, driving huge distances for gigs and putting in a lot of work, but who can’t make any money until promoters are willing to put themselves on the line. The topic we’ve been circling around for a while is the euphemistic ‘current financial climate’ – the double whammy of funding cuts hitting arts organisations hard, and audiences having less money to spend on tickets.

Sean comments that tickets now mostly sell at the last minute, and Kathryn says “No-one will plan in advance. We’ve even spoken to people who say numbers vary depending on what week of the month it is, because of when people get paid. It’s had a huge knock-on effect. But I do think that’s partly why we have really successful folk clubs, because they’ve never been subject to funding, so the good ones can keep going because they have the support and they haven’t got an outside body to account to. In that way for the folk scene it’s quite good that it’s its own entity. But the arts centres, that’s difficult.”

They’ve begun to see recently-revised contracts for some arts centres making increasingly implausible requests – quantities of flyers and posters for one performance that would cost so much to print that, even if the venue sold out, they would still make a loss. “Either they’ve only been in the job five minutes,” speculates Sean, and Kathryn finishes the thought: “or no-one’s going. Panic stations.”

Music has notoriously become more marketing-led over the last few years – not just at major label level; smaller independent labels are having to compete for the same limited attention and money – and it’s something that sits uneasily with the authenticity of music-making found under the broad banner of folk, roots and world: “The music becomes secondary to the spin,” says Sean. “The purpose and value of records has changed from what they were decades ago. Now they’re as much a calling card and a business tool as anything, unfortunately. Another interesting thing for us is going through this whole experience working with a label, because that’s totally changed since we did it, and not for the better I don’t think.”

In what way, I ask? Sean hesitates. “In that it’s quite…” he pauses; “quite whorey.” “Good choice of words,” laughs Kathryn. “No, after the experience of working with the big record companies we did a lot of things on our own, and then suddenly you have to give up a certain amount of control again. And that is always difficult.”

But the pair seem to have found an ideal balance between family life and professional music-making; they are almost embarrassed by how fortunate they feel. They’ve experienced huge changes in the folk scene, and have worked through one of the most tumultuous periods the music industry has seen for decades. Do they have some sort of grand plan? What are they hoping to do next?

Sean responds; “It’s very hard; I mean, you’re asking us ‘what next’, but things seem to move at such a pace. We hear from a lot of people that the collapse of various elements of the music industry is just completely imminent. Any month there’s all sorts of things that could just crumble. This summer you’ve seen so much huge financial loss with festivals, that’s going to have a vast impact; festivals aren’t going to be the same. More than ever you can’t second guess your next steps; you’ve just got to be happy with what you do. Being musicians that can get on a stage and play live, I think that’s one of the most tangible, realistic, really real, valued things that are left, and people still hold a live musical experience dear, because it cannot be replaced.”

Kathryn & Sean have two nominations in the BBC Folk Awards, as best duo and for their song The Ballad Of Andy Jacobs.